"One surprising finding was that, although the five-and-six year-old children remembered a higher percentage of the events, their narratives of these events were less complete," says Patricia Bauer. "The older children remembered fewer events, but the ones they remembered had more detail." (Credit: "let me think" via Shutterstock)

Early memories slip away around age 7

Although infants use their memories to learn new information, few adults can remember events in their lives that happened prior to the age of three.

Psychologists have now documented that age seven is when these earliest memories tend to fade into oblivion, a phenomenon known as “childhood amnesia.”

The journal Memory published the research, which involved interviewing children about past events in their lives, starting at age three. Different subsets of the group of children were then tested for recall of these events at ages five, six, seven, eight, and nine.

“Our study is the first empirical demonstration of the onset of childhood amnesia,” says Emory University psychologist Patricia Bauer, who led the study. “We actually recorded the memories of children, and then we followed them into the future to track when they forgot these memories.”

The study’s co-author is Marina Larkina, a manager of research projects for the psychology department. The Bauer Memory Development Lab focuses on how episodic, or autobiographical memory, changes through childhood and early adulthood.

‘Childhood amnesia’

“Knowing how autobiographical memory develops is critically important to understanding ourselves as psychic beings,” Bauer says. “Remembering yourself in the past is how you know who you are today.”

Scientists have long known, based on interviews with adults, that most people’s earliest memories only go back to about age three. Sigmund Freud coined the term “childhood amnesia” to describe this loss of memory from the infant years.

Using his psychoanalytic theory, Freud made the controversial proposal that people were repressing their earliest memories due to their inappropriate sexual nature.

In recent years, however, growing evidence indicates that, while infants use memory to learn language and make sense of the world around them, they do not yet have the sophisticated neural architecture needed to form and hold onto more complex forms of memory.

Instead of relying on interviews with adults, as previous studies of childhood amnesia have done, the researchers wanted to document early autobiographical memory formation, as well as the age of forgetting these memories.

‘Remember when…?’

The experiment began by recording 83 children at the age of three, while their mothers or fathers asked them about six events that the children had experienced in recent months, such as a trip to the zoo or a birthday party.

“We asked the parents to speak as they normally would to their children,” Bauer says.

She gives a hypothetical example: “The mother might ask, ‘Remember when we went to Chuck E. Cheese’s for your birthday party?’ She might add, ‘You had pizza, didn’t you?'”

The child might start recounting details of the Chuck E. Cheese experience or divert the conversation by saying something like, “Zoo!”

Some mothers might keep asking about the pizza, while another mother might say, “Okay, we went to the zoo, too. Tell me about that.”

Parents who followed a child’s lead in these conversations tended to elicit richer memories from their three-year-olds, Bauer says. “This approach also related to the children having a better memory of the event at a later age.”

Memories that stick around longer may have richer details associated with them.

After recording these base memories, the researchers followed up with the children years later, asking them to recall the events that they recounted at age three. The study subjects were divided into five different groups, and each group of children returned only once to participate in the experiment, from the ages of five to nine.

While the children between the ages of five and seven could recall 63 to 72 percent of the events, the children who were eight and nine years old remembered only about 35 percent of the events.

Detail and language

“One surprising finding was that, although the five-and-six year-old children remembered a higher percentage of the events, their narratives of these events were less complete,” Bauer says. “The older children remembered fewer events, but the ones they remembered had more detail.”

Some reasons for this difference may be that memories that stick around longer may have richer detail associated with them and increasing language skills enable an older child to better elaborate the memory, further cementing it in their minds, Bauer says.

Young children tend to forget events more rapidly than adults do because they lack the strong neural processes required to bring together all the pieces of information that go into a complex autobiographical memory, she explains.

“You have to learn to use a calendar and understand the days of the week and the seasons. You need to encode information about the physical location of the event. And you need development of a sense of self, an understanding that your perspective is different from that of someone else.”

Which memories slip through?

She uses an analogy of pasta draining in a colander to explain the difference between early childhood and adult memories.

“Memories are like orzo,” she says, referring to the rice-grained-sized pasta, “little bits and pieces of neural encoding.”

Young children’s brains are like colanders with large holes trying to retain these little pieces of memory. “As the water rushes out, so do many of the grains of orzo,” Bauer says. “Adults, however, use a fine net instead of a colander for a screen.”

Now that Bauer has documented the onset of childhood amnesia, she hopes to hone in on the age that people acquire an adult memory system, which she believes is between the age of nine and the college years.

“We’d like to know more about when we trade in our colanders for a net,” she says. “Between the ages of 9 and 18 is largely a no-man’s land of our knowledge of how memory forms.”

Source: Emory University

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13 Comments

  1. Debra

    I’m wondering if between interview sessions with the children, some of their parents reinforced their child’s early memories by looking through photo albums or just talking about family events more often other families. I would guess that some families do that a lot while others maybe not so much.

  2. Rob N

    Debra, I deliberately did that with my son. There’s a couple things that happened when he was young, and every so often I would ask if he remembers it, just to refresh that memory and cause it to be strengthened.
    I have a couple clear memories from when I was 2.5 or 3, and just a few more for the next 4 years.

  3. Dee Lightner

    I remember many things that happened in my life prior to age 3 or 4. I can pinpoint these memories because my next oldest sibling was born when I was just short of 4 years old. And the memories I have do not include that sibling, nor his father (my stepfather), but only the part of the family I lived with until my mother remarried. I don’t remembe DAY TO DAY stuff, but do not only have memories of events, but in my mind can clearly see the locations of the various memories, as if it were yesterday. Maybe I am just unusual, but I treasure these memories today. I am now 70 years old, so I have remembered these events for a REALLY long time.

  4. BB

    As well as frequently looking a photos from baby and toddlers years and discussing the events with children, I wonder what effect viewing and re-viewing videos from those early years has on children’s ability to recall details of those events in later years.

  5. Cathy A

    I have a few memories from before I was two years old and we did not have videos or pictures of the events. I know it is rare but it happens.

  6. Larri

    I have quite a few memories from before I was three. I remember many moments of my third birthday itself very vividly. I have multiple menories of memories of being in the stroller. I remember all these details of a colonial reenactment. I remember noticing how there was a group of men (soldiers) and one facing them who would make some call/command and that when he did this the group would respond by uniformly moving in some way. (I wouldn’t have known these terms, I’m just describing what I was observing.) Well I had thought that this was some dream, until we went back to that city when I was about 12, and I saw a pamphlet for this place. I asked my dad if we had been there, and he said we had but I was only a year and a half (or so) old, and that I couldn’t have remembered. He was quite surprised when I was able to describe in detail the place and what we did, and the footies I was wearing (everything is from the perspective of my stroller). Anyways, I have lots more like this, and every so often I just think them over to keep them fresh, and pull up new ones too.

  7. Ed Howland

    I have a number of memories of my early years, including one of riding in my pram. We would frequently encounter a neighbor, Mrs Curate, who would exclaim, “Isn’t he cute?” I didn’t like her and would close my eyes to make her go away.
    I also remember a frequent nightmare in which I was tightly restrained by an overpowering force which eventually subsided. I have often wondered if that is a recollection of my birth.

    is

  8. Annie Maugham

    Toward the end of the article, you use “hone in.” This is a misspelling. It’s “home in,” as in homing pigeon. It means to seek a narrower point. “HONE” means to sharpen; it’s what you do with a knife: you hone it.
    – an educated copy editor

  9. Mike

    “Home in.” It’s “home in,” not “hone in.” You don’t “hone in” on something, because honing is what you do to a blade to sharpen it.
    AH! I see that somebody else has already brought this up. Fortunately there are at least two of us that can still use the language properly. UNFORTUNATELY, we’re not the ones getting paid to do it.

  10. Mike

    …and that’s not a misspelling, it’s a usage error…which is definitely worse.

  11. Rob

    I can remember events in detail from before I was one. Included in the detail are comments made by my mom and dad including whether I wanted a brother (we’re 18 months apart). We couldn’t afford photos or television until I was 14. Now there’s a good brain-washer; television.

  12. KJPS

    I don’t understand why any of this is a surprise. it’s like our most advanced minds don’t understand memory when I think it should be coming sense. Memories are retained by reminiscing, and lost by not doing so, plain and simple. Those children who recalled or even filled in the gaps in more detail made the memories last longer. The whole reason for so-called amnesia is the fact the children are more forward-looking in their experience, and don’t try to recall things so much as experience new things. Really folks, this isn’t rocket science.

  13. Veronica

    Some of my very early memories, around age 2 and older, don’t involve anybody else. I think I remember them because they were incidents that made me think, even at such a young age. I saw my grandson doing the same thing when he was a baby.

    My earliest memory of a migraine was at 2 1/2. I don’t know if it was my first migraine or the first one that I remember. I remember the nausea and the pain, especially the nausea. Because the memories also involve vomiting, which usually happens at the apex of the migraine, mine at least. There are also funny memories.

    Now I really must add my deux sous to the HONE/HOME discussion. It is now acceptable to say “HONE in on” in place of “Home in on” according to Oxford, Merriam-Webster, et al.

    Personally, I think “HONE” is more accurate description than “Home” when used in the context of most of the previously “Home In On” phrases. To me the act of “honing” indicates you’re narrowing the possibilities or the area to search, or what have you. But that’s just my frivolous opinion.

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